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Olympics in shadow of Coronavirus: How previous Games responded to crises

While Japan assures the Tokyo Olympic 2020 Games will go on as planned, there have been cancellations and muted versions, along with some triumph of spirit in the past

Shibu Tripathi  |  New Delhi 

Tokyo Olympic
A man wearing protective face mask, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, is seen through The Olympic rings in front of the Japan Olympics Museum in Tokyo

The on Tuesday announced that the 2020 Tokyo has been postponed to no later than the summer of 2021 due to the pandemic. The historic decision was taken after a telephonic conversation between the IOC president Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Japan’s Minister Seiko Hashimoto had earlier said that the Tokyo 2020 would go as planned, despite the spike in the number of cases in the country. The rapid spread of the had put a question mark on the future of the Olympics and whether the country was capable of hosting the event amid all the turmoil.

However, this is not the first such instance when the sporting event has been suspended. They had been cancelled at least on three occasions due to the two World Wars, and also played under the shadow of tragedies, such as the terror attack in Munich, 1972.

Tokyo Olympic

A man wearing protective face mask, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, is seen through The Olympic rings in front of the Japan Olympics Museum in Tokyo. Reuters

1916 Olympics: World War-I pushes Germany to the brink

The 1916 Summer Olympics were scheduled to be held in Berlin, Germany, but were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War-1 in 1914. The participating nations and the host continued preparing for the games even after the war began in the hope that the global conflict would not last long. While the Games had to be scrapped evenutually, the sixth Olympiad saw the birth of the first Winter Olympics. The cancellation of the Games was a major setback for the German empire, which had spent mammoth sums in building the stadiums and preparing Berlin, as it sought to display its financial and political muscle to the world.

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It was in 1931 that Germany again started bidding for the games and hosted it in 1936 under Adolf Hitler. Ironically, the 1936 Olympics were the last before World War-II began.

1940 Olympics: Loss of face for Tokyo ahead of Games suspension

If the are cancelled, it won’t be the first Japan will lose hosting rights. In 1940, the Games were shifted from Tokyo to Helsinki and ultimately suspended as several countries entered World War-II.

Harumi Olympic Village Planned place, Japan Tokyo

Harumi Olympic Village Planned place, Japan Tokyo


The campaign to choose a host for the 1940 Olympics began in 1932 and Tokyo won the bid in 1936, a year before the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out. In 1937, a suggestion was put forward in the Japanese Parliament, Diet, to cancel the games. However, the IOC postponed the games and awarded hosting right to Helsinki, which was second in the bidding process. However, the games were eventually suspended indefinitely due to World War-II. The next Olympics were held only in 1948 in London.

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1944 Olympics: As war continues, Games put on hold

The XIII Olympiad, which was scheduled to held in London has to be called off due to World War-II. The Games, if held, would have celebrated the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the IOC. The milestone was instead celebrated in the form of a small sporting meet at the organisation’s headquarters in Lausanne. London went on to host the Olympics in 1948 after the end of the second world war.

Sporting spirit conquers 1972 Munich tragedy

The 1972 Munich Olympics were one of the most tragic events in the history of world sports when Palestinian terrorists killed eleven Israeli players. Black September, the Palestinian terror group, demanded the release of 230 Arab prisoners and two German terrorists held in Israeli jails. Its militants stormed the Olympic village on September 5, killing two Israeli players and taking nine others hostage. In the ensuing shootout at Munich airport, the nine hostages were killed along with five terrorists and a West German policeman. The Olympic competition was suspended for 24 hours in memory of the deceased players.

Motion blur of tourists past

Motion blur of tourists past "Welcome to Tokyo 2020" message is seen at the arrival gate in Haneda Airport, Tokyo, Japan

Bomb shatters 1996 Atlanta’s Olympic village

Two people were killed and 111 others were injured as a bomb blast rocked the Centennial Olympic Park designed as the town square of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in the United States. However, drawing inspiration from the Munich tragedy, the IOC maintained that the 17-day competition would continue. The blast was orchestrated by Eric Robert Rudolph, who went on to conduct two more bombings across the US. He was convicted in 2005 after pleading guilty to evade the death sentence. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

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Even as Japan assures that the Games will be conducted smoothly between July 24 and August 9, the Coronavirus outbreak has spread to over 60 countries forcing organisers to cancel several sporting events worldwide. Over 3,200 people have succumbed to COVID-19, and 93,000 have been infected.

First Published: Thu, March 05 2020. 18:08 IST